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Holman Bible Dictionary

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(Nile) The major river considered the “life” of ancient Egypt. The Hebrew word usually used for the Nile in the Old Testament is y' or. This is in fact borrowed from the Egyptian word itrw or itr by which the Egyptians referred to the Nile and the branches and canals that led from it.

The Egyptian Nile is formed by the union of the White Nile which flows out of Lake Victoria in Tanzania and the Blue Nile from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. These join at Khartum in the Sudan and are later fed by the Atbara. Thereafter the Nile flows, 1675 miles northward to the Mediterranean Sea without any further tributary. In antiquity six cataracts or falls prevented navigation at various points. The first of these, going upstream, is found at Aswan, generally recognised as the southern boundary of Egypt. From Aswan northwards, the Nile flows between two lines of cliffs which sometimes come directly down to its edge but in other places are up to nine miles away. The shore land could be cultivated as far as Nile water could be brought. This cultivated area the Egyptians called the Black Land from the color of the rich soil. Beyond lay the Red Land of the low desert stretching to the foot of the cliffs. At the cliff tops was the great inhospitable desert where few Egyptians ventured. elow the modern capital, Cairo, and the nearby ancient capital, Memphis, the Nile forms a huge delta. The many ancient cities in this area now lie below the water table. Little archaeological excavation has been done here, though this is the area where the closest links with Palestine are likely to have been located. The eastern edge of the Delta is the site of the land of Goshen where Jacob/Israel and his descendents were settled. See Goshen.

The Nile is the basis of Egypt's wealth, indeed of its very life. It is the only river to flow northwards across the Sahara. Egypt was unique as an agricultural community in not being dependent on rainfall. The secret was the black silt deposited on the fields by the annual flood caused when the Blue Nile was swollen by the run-off from the winter rains in Ethiopia. This silt was remarkably fertile. Irrigation waters raised laboriously from the river, let the Egyptians produce many varieties of crops in large quantities (Numbers 11:5; Genesis 42:1-2). If the winter rains failed, the consequent small or nonexistent inundation resulted in disastrous famine: some are recorded as lasting over a number of years (compare Genesis 41:1).

Even today water is brought to the individual fields by small channels leading off the arterial ditches. These channels are closed off by earth dams which can be broken down with the foot when it is a particular farmer's turn to use the water. (See Deuteronomy 11:10.) Since life was concentrated in the valley, the river was also a natural highway. All major journeys in Egypt were undertaken by boat helped by the current when traveling north or by the prevailing wind when headed south. The first of the ten plagues is often linked with conditions in the river at the peak of the flood season in August when large numbers of tiny organisms turn the water red and could make it foul and undrinkable. It would also kill off the fish which would decompose and infect the frogs (the second plague) leading to successive plagues of lice, flies, and pestilences. God may have used such natural conditions with His timing to plague Egypt. See Egypt; Plagues.

John Ruffle

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'NILE RIVER'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<>. 1991.


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